Syrian tycoon appeals to Assad in rare video to help save his telecom firm

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria’s leading tycoon, Rami Makhlouf, said he will appeal to President Bashar al-Assad to allow his mobile communications company, Syriatel, to reschedule payment of taxes owed to the government in order to avoid a possible collapse of the firm.

Makhlouf, who is chairman of Syriatel, is a maternal cousin of Assad and widely considered part of the president’s inner circle. He said the government’s demand of 130 billion Syrian pounds ($300 million) was “unjust” but that he would comply.

“We are not evading taxes or deceiving the state … because you are our people. Does anyone steal oneself?” he said in a rare video message on social media released late on Thursday.

Makhlouf and his family are believed to own at least 69% of Syriatel, which is one of the war-ravaged economy’s main sources of revenue. He said the company has 11 million subscribers and more than 6,500 shareholders.

Addressing Assad directly in the video, he said: “I hope your instructions would be to reschedule (the payments) in a satisfactory way so that the company does not collapse from that amount.”

The billionaire has been under U.S. sanctions since 2008 for what Washington calls public corruption and it has since toughened measures against top businessmen who are close to him.

The European Union has also slapped sanctions on Makhlouf since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, accusing him of bankrolling Assad.

He become a hated figure to many pro-democracy protesters who rose up against corruption and the authoritarian rule of Assad in March 2011.

Makhlouf, who owes his fortune to Assad and was seen by many Syrian businessmen and others as his front, was rumoured last year to have fallen out of favour for not doing enough to finance the country’s war effort.

In the video, Makhlouf who like Assad comes from the country’s Alawite minority that holds political power, lashed out at critics who have long accused him of amassing illicit wealth.

“I am getting very tired. They are always putting me in the circle of accusation,” he said, adding that the government had reneged on its terms of a profit-sharing deal under which half of Syriatel’s profit went to the state.

Makhlouf’s extensive business network, which encompasses banks, real estate and oil trading, has crowded out some of the traditional merchant community in Syria.

“Makhlouf’s long-time monopoly of large sectors of the Syrian economy had provoked discontent among the country’s business establishment,” Jihad Yazigi, a Syria expert and editor of economic magazine Syria Report, said on Friday.

Makhlouf said his dealings are all above-board and invited Assad to investigate his businesses for any malpractice.

“We are ready to open all our papers to everyone,” he added.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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